Thursday, December 4, 2008

Long Live the Christmas Tree

When I worked for a NYC garden designer, it was a matter of business to be putting up Christmas trees and holiday decorations after the last frozen impatien was pulled out of the soil. I hadn't understood that holiday decorations were a gardener's business until then, or that it was in Manhattan, on certain streets. I thought, until those under-lit December days, that a family would be spirited into selecting their own tree, hanging their personal decorations with the kids, and generally enjoying the spirit of the moment. But for some, selecting and mounting a live-cut tree is a gardener's business and happy is the gardener to take in some extra cash before the long dry spell of winter.

J&L Landscaping, my local nursery, has brought in the post-Thanksgiving selection of cut Christmas trees. I like to smell them as I pass to and from the subway. It tells me what time of year it is, should I forget for not hearing 24 hour Christmas tunes on the radio. There were quite a few years where I felt I was a live, uncut Christmas tree kind of guy. Despite my feeling for this, it was largely a theoretical notion as I have never actually done this. Nor is it practical in the city or anywhere, really, as the tree will suffer going from a cold exterior environment to the warm, dry of the house and then back out again into the freezing landscape. I think I could keep it alive, but not without complete devotion.

Recently I heard an npr radio announcement for an ad man who wants to modernize the image of Christmas, noting with particular difficulty the modernizing of the "overly 19th century Santa Claus." I think the plastic tree, for a while anyway, lent the flavor of modern to home adornment during Christmas. Yet, I think the reason Christmas lands so squarely in the nineteenth century (or earlier) is, of course, the sentimental nature of the holiday. But isn't it also because the 19th century is a time far enough away for it to have the tone of simpler times -but close enough for us to be able to relate? Somehow, too, images and thoughts amount to 19th century life as closer to nature despite industrial realities and major resource depletion of, say -trees. Our live Christmas tree brings us closer to an image of us in spirit with the natural world, connected. Even if collecting our Christmas tree is a bit of ritual theater, the symbolism is overwhelming and might even be superstitious if it weren't so abstract, so truly distant from our lives.

My wife and I go to Minnesota to her father's place every Christmas. He goes out to a tree farm and cuts a grand tree every year. Its always set up by the time we arrive. We do not always get our own tree because we are never in our house for the holiday. But some years, we do head around the corner to J&L and pick out a short balsam or noble fir for our apartment.

My family has teetered between plastic and live-cut trees and have now comfortably settled into the "don't have to go shopping for a tree and don't have to vacuum needles" option that is the plastic tree. I don't complain.

I recently came across the National Christmas Tree Association Tree Types web page. Who knew there was an association for the Christmas Tree? And why not? I guess it would be more responsible, but less spirited, to have called the group the National Christmas Tree Growers Association. Anyhow, on their page they list the 10 Myths of the live cut Christmas tree- according to them.

Most of what they state seems reasonable enough, but in our urban world distaste for pesticides, fungicides, and the like is pretty strong. So the only myth they might not have succeeded in debunking is that one, in my opinion. Problem is that no-one wants bugs or unhealthy trees in their home, but don't want the residues of treatment either.

What of the environmental debate: which is better, the fake or the live?

The Council on the Environment of NYC has a local grower's list for pickup at NYC farmer's markets.
The Brooklyn Botanical Garden Christmas tree identifier.

My apologies for the Internet of Dead Links

Some different types of Christmas trees available locally:

Some images courtesy of the NCTA
Noble Fir

Fraser Fir

Balsam Fir

Colorado Blue Spruce


  1. I love the scent of the balsam firs.

    In South Africa every (summer-)Christmas growing up, I am afraid we had a white-painted, dried agave flower as a tree, about 7 feet high. Useful twigs for hanging the ornaments...

    Now my mom brings in an indigenous potted tree from the garden every year. I think it is a gardenia at the moment; other years it's been assegaai trees. One of whihc is at leat 20 feet tall now, and part of her "bird hedge".

  2. MMM, Balsam. Very common in Maine, where I had spent 6 of the last 8 summers. Such a good scent.

    I spent 3 years in the Chihuahuan desert of southern New Mexico. I was introduced to the agave there, where the locals called it the "century plant" because you were lucky to ever see yours flower (once in a century).
    I was lucky to see a friend's flower stalk shoot up and, you know, it definitely has that acute magic, the isosceles triangle shape of the Christmas tree.


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